Tuesday, June 7, 2011

15 Beats: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

"15 Beats" is a series which breaks down movies into late screenwriter Blake Snyder's 15 beats of a successful story. 

**I'm bringing over some of my series posts from my old blog, so this is a blast-from-the-past post for those of you who have been with me since Wordpress.**  

A friend of mine put me in touch with Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, SAVE THE CAT: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need.  In it, Snyder details the 15 beats of the three-act structure essential to any successful plot.

Since reading the book, it’s been hard not to analyze every movie I see or book I read in terms of this structure, and I now “beat out” all my manuscript plots to make sure my stories are going somewhere.

Recently, I watched one of my new favorites, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I thought I’d nerd it up a bit and beat it out.  When I did this back in December with It's A Wonderful Life, I said this would become somewhat of a regular feature, here on the blog; however, I've been slacking.

So, here it is---enjoy!
Opening Image
At the opening of the movie, protagonist Peter Bretter eats cereal from a large mixing bowl and watches Access Hollywood in his boxers. We watch the show along with him and get a montage of Peter and his famous girlfriend---Sarah Marshall---an actress on the show Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime.  Within the story Billy Bush tells on the screen, we learn that Peter is a composer who does music for Sarah's show and that they've been in a relationship for five years.  In the final credits, we also get a glimpse of Aldous Snow, a British rocker from the band Infant Sorrow who is equally as famous as Sarah.

Theme Stated
The way I see it, there are a few moments where the theme or something that touches on the theme is stated right here in the beginning.  The theme is essentially that she's a big deal and he isn't---and will she accept him for who he is.

We get the sense, right off the bat that, no, she doesn't---Sarah calls right as Access Hollywood ends, saying she is stopping by, and Peter scrambles to clean his messy apartment.  This suggests he doesn't want her to know the real Peter.  Plus, when she does arrive, she breaks up with him and cites one of the reasons as being because he spent an entire week in sweat pants.

Peter: (to Sarah) Oh, if they were Sean Jean sweatpants it would be no problem.  But because they were Costco brand, it's the worst thing I could do.

But, according to Snyder in STC, the theme is usually stated in a question somewhere near the beginning.  That said, it could be when Peter and his stepbrother Brian discuss how to move on.  Peter wants to go to Hawaii to clear his head, and Brian says that's a bad idea.

Peter: What, now I can't go to Hawaii now because Sarah Marshall has heard of Hawaii?
The Access Hollywood piece at the beginning does a great job of giving us all the backstory we need to know in such a short amount of time---as does Sarah breaking up with Peter.

Even though it's hilarious, the nekkid breakup scene
has symbolic significance. He's the one that's vulnerable--exposed;
she's the one calling the shots, and she has something to hide.

Other than the exposition, we see Peter's ups and downs in terms of dealing with the breakup:
  • He engages in several one-night stands.
  • At home---alone---he cries when someone is kicked off Project Runway.

    Peter: (with Heidi Klum on the screen) Auf Wiedersehen.
  • At his job, writing the musical score for Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, he lashes out at Sarah's character on the screen.
  • He burns everything Sarah-related and listens to Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2U."

  • Peter: Everywhere I look, I'm reminded of her.  Like this thing. (He picks up the tupperware full of Fruit Loops and tells his brother the story of how Sarah gave it to him) . . .  And now I have the freshest cereal.
Peter goes to Hawaii to clear his mind.  As he's talking to attractive receptionist Rachel Jansen, Sarah shows up in a bikini.  They have an awkward encounter in the lobby, as Sarah and her new man---Aldous Snow---are staying at the same hotel.

The debate portion shows up in a few spots.  During his flight, Sarah is the narrator of the in-flight entertainment.  When he gets to the hotel, she's staying there as well.
It's basically, should he stay, or should he go?  Will he be able to survive the trip?

Sarah: So you're really staying . . . you're going to stay?

Peter: (sarcastically) Yeah, I feel at home here.  I love it here.

Sarah: (sarcastically as well) Yeah, you should stay.

Break into Two
Peter's decided he's going to stay, and Rachel says he can stay in the Kapu suite as long as he cleans up after himself.

Peter: Why are you doing this for me?
Rachel: She's here with some guy already?  Kinda messed up.
B Story
Peter meets other vacationers, he gets to know some of the hotel staff, etc.  But the sparks flying between Peter and Rachel are the main focus of Peter's B story.

Fun and Games
Many entertaining things ensue as Peter settles in to his new surroundings:
  • He's going out and drinking  a bunch of girlie drinks.
"I'm on SEX AND THE CITY.  I'm Samantha---I have sex with everybody!"
  • He attends and makes it through a yoga class with Sarah and Aldous there (of course).
  • Chuck (a.k.a. Kunu) takes him surfing.

    Chuck/Kunu: When life gives you lemons, just say fuck the lemons and bail.
  • He goes to a luau on the fourth of July and ends up going to a beach party with Rachel, where he opens up to her about how he hates his job.
  • At a karaoke bar, Rachel arranges for Peter to sing a song from the rock opera he's writing about Dracula and true love.
What's interesting about beating out this movie is that it has both a midpoint and an anti-midpoint.  There is a midpoint with the B story between Peter and Rachel and an anti-midpoint in the story between Peter and Sarah---it's a high point for the audience because it's a low point for Sarah.

Let me explain the anti-midpoint first.  It's a victory for our protagonist in that Sarah's world begins to crumble:
  • She gets a call that Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime has been canceled.
  • She and Aldous fight because he tells her he's going on an 18-month tour in two weeks and insults her when he asks her to accompany him.

    Aldous: "You could be queen of the Sorrow Suckers."
Chuck/Kunu: Hey, if you get attacked by a shark, are you just gonna quit surfing?  Peter: Probably - yeah.

This is also like an anti-midpoint because Sarah starts sniffing around Peter again.  She's seen him with Rachel and uses this news about the show to drive a wedge between her ex and the receptionist---and to make herself feel better, since Peter has always been there for her.
  • Sarah and Peter have an "honest conversation."
  • She reaches out and holds his hand.
This is seemingly a victory for Peter because all he wanted was for Sarah to come back to him, and it looks like she's going to---and, by definition, a midpoint is where the protagonist gets what he wants . . . or what he *thinks* he wants.  However, the audience is going, "Nooooooooo!"
  • But it's short-lived because Peter flashes back to Sarah not "getting" the song from his Dracula rock opera.
  • When he comes back to the present, Peter breaks hands with Sarah and asks about Aldous.
Concerning the B story and the true midpoint, Rachel finally kisses Peter after they cliff dive---symbolic of "taking the plunge."

Bad Guys Close In
Dakota Fanning rents the Kapu suite, so Rachel has to put Peter in the only available room---right next to Sarah and Aldous's.  Sarah's perfect little world is falling apart, so she begins messing with how well things are going between Peter and Rachel:
  • Sarah confronts Rachel about Peter:

    Sarah:  He's a really good guy.  Great, actually. (She pretends to cry.)
  • While they surf together, Peter learns from Aldous that Sarah was cheating with him for a year of their relationship.

    Peter: (to Sarah) I'm sorry I didn't end up being who we thought I was going to be.
  • Aldous doesn't wear the shirt Sarah bought him---she flashes back to all the douchey things Peter wore, just because she bought them for him.
  • They bump into Peter and Rachel---who look great---and share an awkward dinner during which everyone---even Aldous---mocks Sarah's lame career.
  • Peter goes to see Sarah when he hears of her breakup with Aldous, and she tries to get him back, but he realizes he isn't into it.

    Sarah: What's wrong with you?

    Peter: Nothing's wrong with me.  It's just---something doesn't feel right.  You're the goddamn devil.
All Is Lost
Trying to be honest, Peter tells Rachel he almost had sex with Sarah but realized he didn't want to.  She gets upset.

Rachel: I need you to leave.  Do not write me. Do not e-mail me. Do not call me.

Dark Night of the Soul
In attempt at getting her back, Peter retrieves an embarrassing picture of Rachel from the karaoke bar and gets his ass kicked by the owner in the process.  He gives it back to her, she doesn't want to see him, and he flies home.

Break into Three
Peter begins working seriously on his music vampire musical again.  We see him work out, bettering his life, etc.  He sends Rachel a flyer for his rock opera A Taste of Love.

Peter stars in his musical, and at curtain call, he makes eye contact with Rachel, who is in the audience.
After the show, they talk, and he learns that her stay is open-ended and that she's thinking about going back to finish school.

Rachel: You never called . . .
Peter: You told me not to.  I listened.
Final Image
They share an awkward hug and say they'll hang out, but Rachel tells Peter to go greet his public.

Back in his dressing room, he is about to call her . . . and then she appears . . .  and he's naked---just like he was at the beginning when Sarah broke up with him (so it's come full circle both in terms of tying up Peter's happiness and reminding us that this is, above all, a wacky comedy).

They kiss.
Peter and his stepbrother performing as Dracula
and Van Helsing, respectively, in TASTE OF LOVE.
And, although this happens during the credits, you could also call this a final image:  the trailer for Sarah Marshall's new role in another crappy, corny police drama, Animal Instincts.  But it's definitely worth mentioning because Jason Bateman is also in it, and I heart him.


  1. Very cool breakdown! Makes me want to see the movie :)

  2. Thanks, Jess! It's an awesome movie. And I LOVE breaking down movies by their STC beats (*nerd alert*)!